The release of the acclaimed historical drama "Lincoln" by Steven Spielberg has renewed discussions about how one of this nation's greatest presidents handled both adversity and dissent in a time rich in both.
The book "Team of Rivals," on which the Spielberg film is based, explores how Lincoln brought together disgruntled political opponents to create one of the most unusual and effective cabinets in history.
One story in particular is relevant today amid the partisan divisions that threaten to push the country over a "fiscal cliff" unless a compromise is reached before the end of December.
It concerns William H. Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state. Seward had more reason than anybody to be disappointed by the outcome of the 1860 election. As senator and former governor of New York, he had been considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Historians note that Seward accepted the cabinet position with "a condescending and skeptical attitude" toward Lincoln. But that would change as the nation quickly became engulfed in financial uncertainty and civil war.
"By the fall of 1863," author Doris Kearns Goodwin writes in "Rivals," Seward "had both accepted and respected Lincoln's consummate control of his cabinet and the relationship between the two men &‘had grown very close and unreserved,' according to Fred Seward, the secretary of state's son."
Kearns Goodwin goes on to share this story:
<i>Fred Seward recounted the events of one morning in October 1863 when his father called on Lincoln. "They say, Mr. President, that we are stealing away the rights of the States. So I have come today to advise you that there is another State right I think we ought to steal."
Raising his head from his pile of papers, Lincoln asked, "Well, Governor, what do you want to steal now?"
Seward replied, "The right to name Thanksgiving Day!"
He explained that at present, Thanksgiving was celebrated on different days at the discretion of each state's governor. Why not make it a national holiday?
Lincoln immediately responded that he supposed a president "had as good a right to thank God as a governor."
Seward then presented Lincoln with a proclamation that invited citizens "in every part of the United States," at sea, or abroad "to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November" to give thanks to "our beneficent Father."
The proclamation also commended to God's care "all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers," and called on Him "to heal the wounds of the nation" and restore it to "peace, harmony, tranquility and Union."
</i>Of course, Seward's contributions did not end there. A month later, he was seated next to Lincoln as the two of them listened to a two-hour speech by former Harvard president Edward Everett during the dedication of a plot of land in Pennyslvania — a place called Gettysburg. Lincoln spoke afterward for less than three minutes.
Seward, his rival, helped put the final touches on that historic address as well, showing, once again, what can be achieved when political rivals put the needs of a nation ahead of those of mere men — and embrace compromise as more victory than defeat.
For these leaders and for these moments, we can all be thankful.